Some Programming Notes

I have a review of George Pelecanos‘ new novel, What It Was, at Washington City Paper. I had the rare luxury of an extended word count, so I tried to riff a little about how the new book (much like his last novel, The Cut) cultivates a more optimistic tone than his earlier crime novels. Snippet:

He hasn’t written a book fully set in the ‘70s since his 1997 breakthrough, King Suckerman, and since his 2005 novel, Drama City, he’s been committed to writing about the District as it’s lived in now—the past, when it appears, takes the form of cinematic flashback revealing some old mistake that requires correction. But read The Cut and What It Was alongside each other and it’s clear they actually both go the same way, despite the four-decade distance between their settings. The two novels represent Pelecanos in an increasingly optimistic mode about the District; he’s still fully aware of the city’s flaws, but he’s more interested in sorting out what kind of maturity (and manliness) is necessary to overcome it.

I have a shorter review of Stewart O’Nan’s new novel, The Odds, at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. It’s not as ambitious as his previous novel, last year’s Emily, Alone, but it’s a fine, slim tale about salvaging a marriage. In an interview with the New Yorker‘s Book Bench blog, O’Nan explained that (spoiler alert) he cut the story short, I think to its benefit: “I was going to follow them home and show how the money doesn’t solve their problems, only prolongs things, the weekend ultimately becoming a painful memory, but then I thought, why not let them have this moment?”

If you’re in New York this weekend, tomorrow night I’ll be participating on a panel at the Center for Fiction about criticism, joined by a group of very smart people. There’ll be two moderators, National Book Critics Circle president Eric Banks and Bookforum editor Michael Miller, and two copanelists whose work I’ve enjoyed, novelist Rivka Galchen and essayist Elif Batuman.

A reminder: Next week I’ll be blogging about Henry Adams‘ 1880 novel Democracy with Jennifer Howard, who’ll be weighing in on her blog. It’ll be fun; hope you can join us.

Details, Details

My review of Stewart O’Nan‘s new novel, Emily, Alone, appeared in last Sunday’s Minneapolis Star-Tribune. I admire the book, though it took a little while to win me over. The story of an 80-year-old widow, Emily Maxwell, managing her Pittsburgh household after her sister-in-law suffers a stroke, the novel makes some awkward moves early on. A search for a working car battery noisily announces a revitalization theme (in a chapter titled “The Resurrection,” no less), and O’Nan’s attention to detail occasionally feels forced, as when whole paragraphs are dedicated to matters like Emily working a crossword puzzle. “Xwords = drama?” I scribbled in a margin.

Some pages later, I scribbled this: “What could be more perfect for a novelist to write about than old age?” Novelists are professional noticers, and in Emily, O’Nan has a person who has plenty of time not only to take in details but to think about what makes them important. You don’t necessarily need an elderly person for that. O’Nan did much the same thing in his excellent 2007 novel, Last Night at the Lobster, by setting it in a blizzard-bound restaurant, slowing time to take in all the curious ways people behave in a deceptively complicated setting; O’Nan made running a Red Lobster seem as emotionally and technologically fraught as steering the starship Enterprise.

Yet in a character like Emily, someone for whom xwords do = drama, that attention to detail is much more pronounced, because the smallest actions carry plenty of meaning—and, quietly in the background, is the sense that the time allotted for paying such attention is running short. “The day had been an adventure, and she expected to sleep well,” he writes; Emily’s chief accomplishments that day were doing the laundry and walking the dog. The tone of that sentence is flat, declarative, free of irony or judgment; O’Nan means neither to tease Emily for the modesty of her life or to set her up as an object of pity. But he’s not attempting to make a noble hero out of her either. Emily is too clear-headed and demanding for that—she repels not just pity, but condescension too.

O’Nan makes that work not just by describing all that small stuff, but by noting the emotions wrapped up in them. Writing about a thank-you card from Emily’s son Kenneth, he captures plenty about their history, education, and her approach to parenting:

Kenneth, ever dutiful, finished his thank-yous before Margaret started hers, though his were slapdash, as if he’d rushed through them just to be done. Due to larger curriculum changes, in the early seventies the Pittsburgh schools dropped writing, and his cursive never improved. A five-year-old’s scrawls could be charming, but not a fifth-grader’s, and as he grew older, Emily vetted his efforts like a teacher correcting homework, more often than not sending him back to his desk so that it became a struggle, and unpleasant, to the extent that the mere mention of thank-you notes met with a groan—a mistake, since it awakened her sense of outrage, which only escalated the situation. Occasionally he was confined to his room until she deemed his work suitable.

Much of Emily and Kenneth’s adult relationship jibes with that old tussle over thank-you notes—in his hasty scribbling is a lifetime’s worth of arguments over decorum. And O’Nan draws our attention to it without fuss or contrivance.

The Grapes of Mild Outrage

Because I have class issues, I was interested in the closing exchange in Dan Chaon‘s recent interview with the Wall Street Journal. (I enjoyed his 2004 novel, You Remind Me of Me; haven’t read his new one, Await Your Reply)

In an interview, you spoke about the working class today being portrayed in fiction as “TV-watching, Twinkie-eating hicks.” You said you’re trying to show “a searching intellectual and emotional life in people who aren’t educated or rich.” Why don’t more novelists find inspiration in the working class?

There’s not as much contact between people of different social classes as we like to imagine. We’re not living in Oxford, Miss., where Faulkner was able to hang out with extremely rich and extremely poor people. Except in small towns, people are really divided. Most people who grow up in poor communities are not becoming writers. I have students who are the first generation to go to college. They may be great writers, but they want to improve their lives, and becoming a writer is probably not the best way to do that.

Seems like a simple enough point—we don’t have much fiction about working-class lives because there aren’t many working-class writers, and we don’t have many working-class writers because writing, when you’re hovering around the middle of the class ladder or two-thirds of the way down it, is a risky venture. (If you grew up that way and aspired to write, you were more likely to pursue skilled-tradesperson status as a journalist or PR professional. Easier to explain to the parents. I suppose journalism is off the table in that regard, now.) There are exceptions, of course, like Raymond Carver, Richard Price, Stuart Dybek, and Dorothy Allison. You know you’re an exception because you make a point of it: The first line of Allison’s official bio stresses that she is “the first child of a fifteen-year-old unwed mother who worked as a waitress.”

Perhaps it’s not so much that there’s a shortage today of good writers with working-class backgrounds—there’s a shortage of good writers from any background, after all—as a shortage of writing about work itself, and about what “working class” means today. Blame it on a hobbled American manufacturing base, or a fear that any writing about labor will become The Jungle; or, most likely, that work itself is a dull subject to write about. Regardless, American fiction about work is often fiction about finance and offices, as I’ve scribbled about before. Working-class jobs are more often things ripe for satire—like the carnivals in George Saunders‘ “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” and Wells Tower‘s “On the Show.” Both are short stories, as if a book about getting your hands dirty couldn’t clock an eight hour read. Even a fine recent novel on the subject, Stewart O’Nan‘s Last Night at the Lobster, is strikingly slim, barely 150 pages. And though O’Nan has admirable respect for his characters, the overall tone is one of defeat—the Red Lobster in which the novel is set is about to close forever, the snow outside is miserable, and nobody cares to thinks much about the restaurant itself. If you think about it too hard, it’ll just remind you of the futility of life at the lower reaches of the corporate org chart, something the manager considers as he opens for the day:

If he never opens, he thinks, they can never close. It’s a kid’s wish. Whatever happens today, tomorrow the place will be a locked box like the Perkins up the road (and he’ll still have to show up in uniform for a few hours and hand out gift cards to the disappointed lunch crowd, as if this was his fault). For the last two months he’s been carefully managing down his inventory, so they’re low on everything fresh. Corporate will inventory what they can use and send it to Newington—the spoils of war. The rest, like the glass-eyed marlin, they’ll have hauled away. Probably gut the place, leave it to the mice and silverfish he’s fought to a draw for so long.

Why not just burn it to the ground? Whoever comes in is just going to want to build new anyway.

Update: A tipster directs me to this excellent four-way commentary about working-class writers from 2004 between Chaon, Susan Straight, John McNally, and the late Larry Brown. Among other things, the roundtable adds more recommended writers to the pool, including Kent Haruf, Tim Gautreaux, Pete Dexter, and Lynda Barry.


On an unrelated note—though books about music are often stories about failing to get paid properly for your efforts—I have a review of four books about the music industry in today’s Washington Post. It starts this way:

The music industry is supposedly dying, but it’s not going away quietly. A contentious debate this year over online radio royalties turned on who gets paid what in the pop economy. Congressional hearings on a proposed merger of Live Nation and Ticketmaster delved into whether one company would monopolize a corner of the concert business. Michael Jackson’s death not only prompted a massive sales boost for his recordings but also brought a rare moment of agreement between fans and critics on the musical icon’s legacy. As four new books make clear, these stories are just the latest iterations of decades-long arguments over how music gets played, heard, admired and paid for.

The four books are David Suisman‘s Selling Sounds (the one I liked best out of the batch), Greg Milner‘s Perfecting Sound Forever, Elijah Wald‘s How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll, and Greg Kot‘s Ripped.

This Book Could Be Your Life

Does Eric R. Danton‘s Hartford Courant story last week about DIY publishing address an important shift in the book trade, or is it thick with bad parallels and faulty logic? The story argues that self-publishing, long stigmatized by readers, reviewers, and publishers, is enjoying a rehabilitation of reputation—which is as it should be, because, after all, didn’t we think that DIY was a cool thing in music?

Well, we did, and perhaps we still do, but it wasn’t because we were happy to have an indie-rock culture that was free of gatekeepers, as the story suggests; we just wanted a more diverse assortment of gatekeepers from which to choose. Danton cites a handful of labels that serve as useful models for his thesis of operating outside the corporate system, like Sub Pop, Homestead, SST, Touch and Go, and Dischord. All great labels, but ones that were also very reflective of the personalities of their owners. You got behind SST because its owner was in a great band and signed lots of great bands, which made you slightly more patient about the crappy bands he occasionally signed.

Did we escape the age of gatekeepers with the arrival of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, which became an indie-rock phenomenon in 2005 on the back of its unsigned debut album? The Courant story would have it that way: They’re the central musical example in it. But CYHSY doesn’t exemplify how a band can become a (modest) success story without gatekeepers—it exemplifies how the gatekeeper has changed, and no longer needs to be a standard-issue record label.

This is where Danton’s story starts to fail me. His equation of DIY music with DIY publishing fails to acknowledge the culture of discussion, argument, documentation—and, yes, gatekeeping and tastemaking—that’s still installed in DIY music, and doesn’t provide a convincing parallel for DIY publishing. Who’s replaced POD-dy Mouth? Where’s the culture of readers engaged with POD novels in the same way as Pitchfork? Or even the collaborative group of, say, young fantasy writers who’ve built a small cult around themselves by branding the novels they self-publish? Instead, the story’s chief example is Joel Fried, who’s sold a thousand or so copies of his book of essays, Bursts, through BookSurge. How this proves that self-publishing has obliterated its amateur-hour stigma escapes me. If anything, Stewart O’Nan comes off as the most convincing voice in the article, arguing for the old-fashioned publisher: He tells the Courant, “I want to get my book between covers and onto the shelves of as many good bookstores and good libraries as I can, hoping that in time maybe that will translate into it being on the shelves of lots of good readers, and I find the big houses give you the best shot at that.”

I’m not rejecting the value of self-publishing out of hand, and if there are good answers to those questions I asked in the previous paragraph, I’d like to hear them. But it’s inarguable that Danton needed better sources. One possibility would’ve been N. Frank Daniels, whose debut novel, Futureproof, was published in January by Harper Perennial after enjoying some acclaim as a self-published book. The novel itself didn’t do much for me—it’s an overlong accounting of a young man’s descent into heroin addiction, and its plainspoken tone would’ve been more appealing if its plot did anything but move in a ponderous, and-then-this-happened fashion. But it has its fans, and Daniels’ piece in the back of the book, about how he got those fans, is great reading. Feeling he had a worthy book but knowing he didn’t want to go through the rigmarole of going the O’Nan route, he developed a plan:

I would personally market the book to as many people as I possibly could via the Internet and its many avenues for self-promotion. I petitioned people, using primarily MySpace and Amazon, asking them to read the first fifty pages of the book and respond positively or negatively to what they’d read.

Only then did he go through the process of self-publishing the book, which led to a rave from POD-dy Mouth, which led to an Entertainment Weekly piece on the POD-dy Mouth rave, which led to more touring on Daniels’ part, which led to Harper Perennial knocking on his door.

What I like about Daniels’ process is that he gauged interest in his work before self-publishing it, instead of self-publishing his work first, then gauging interest in it; he made an effort to build a small but engaged audience that genuinely hoped for more from him in the future. That’s not unlike every smart band that realizes that nobody wants to own its music until they’ve had a chance to hear it a few times, which means a lot of time spent playing a lot of shows and building a fan base organically. Back in the olden days of Homestead, SST, and Sub Pop, you earned your right to take up space on the merch table, and it’s still a valid approach even if the merch table is now online and enormously long; it proves you’ve respected your audience enough to work on what you’re doing before putting a price tag on it, or even making it available for free. If indie rock is any sort of a model for DIY publishing, it’s not merely in self-publishing—it’s in smart self-publishing strategies that think of the audience before the book.